The Battle Of Arsuf
by Dan Fratini
In the history of the Medieval world, perhaps no events have been as
mystifying, studied, and complex as the Crusades. Lasting from 1095 to 1291,
the traditional Crusades played a major role in the development of Western
Europe, the Middle East, and the Byzantine Empire. Among the many figures who
played a role in the Crusades, two names have stood out far beyond all others,
Richard the Lion-Heart (1157-1199), and Saladin (1137-1193). Though these two
men never met face to face, the full might of their respective armies met on
the open battlefield on September 7, 1191, at Arsuf.
The Third Crusade (1189-1192) had been a response to the overwhelming victories
of Saladin in the previous years. Born Joseph, son of Job, Yusef, son of Ayyub,
the title of Salah-al-din, translated as Rightessnous of the Faith or Rectifier
of the Faith, had been corrupted by Western Europeans to Saladin. By 1169
Saladin had risen from the ranks and established his power base in Egypt, and
following 1175 he had brought the bulk of Syria under his control, giving rise
to the Ayyubid Dynasty, which would survive until its overthrow by the Mameluks
The year 1187 had been a great turning point for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the
largest of the Crusader States, the others being the Principality of Antioch
and the County of Tripoli. His power base fully secure, and in response to
crusader raids, Saladin invaded the kingdom, to be met by the assembled royal
army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. King Guy of Lusignan (1150-1194) led his
army into a disastrous defeat, leaving the kingdom largely undefended in the
face of the Ayyubid host. Throughout 1187 Saladin conquered the remainder of
the kingdom, leaving Tyre as the only significant outpost of the Kingdom of
Following word of the massive losses in the Levant, the royals of Western
Europe answered the call to crusade. Frederick I Barbarossa (1122-1190), Holy
Roman Emperor, was the first to journey to the Holy Land, drowning during a
river crossing. His army was mostly destroyed by disease and Turkish
horse-archers, the remnants of his forces falling under the command of Duke
Leopold V (1157-1194) of Austria. Richard, at this time King of England, Duke
of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, traveled by sea, stopping at
Sicily and conquering the island of Cyprus from the Byzantines before his
arrival at Acre in 1191. Here Guy of Lusignan, along with Duke Leopold and
Phillip Augustus, King of France (1165-1223) were already laying siege to the
Ayyubid held port city. Under Richard's overall command, and by his mastery of
siege warfare, the city fell to the crusaders, returning a vital Mediterranean
port to the kingdom. Phillip, claiming sickness, departed for France, and the
crusader army fell under Richard's sole command. He set his army on the march
to Arsuf, traveling along the Mediterranean coast, desiring to secure port
cities from which he could launch an inland invasion on the city of Jerusalem
itself. It was during this march that Richard would met the forces of Saladin
at the battle of Arsuf.
Medieval sources often wildly exaggerate the size of armies, while armies
tended to be raised for specific campaigns, lacking standard peacetime numbers.
The English and French crusaders of Richard, the remaining crusaders of
Phillip, the German stragglers of Barbarossa, and the forces of Guy, along with
the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, in all likelihood numbered roughly
20,000-30,000 men. The army would have been infantry heavy, only a few thousand
men being knights, along with Turcopole light cavalry, in all a cavalry force
not likely to exceed 4-5,000 men.
The knights of the late 1100s were covered head to toe in chainmail armor, a
surcoat, to protect against the heat and signal the knight's allegiance, worn
outside of the chain, padded cloth worn underneath. Knights mostly wore conical
helms or kettle helms with plate visors, precursors to the great helm. Their
warhorses were barded with cloth or leather to protect against arrows, though
this was a fairly recent practice. The larger kite shield was giving way to the
smaller and more triangular heater shield, while offensive armament consisted
of longsword, lance, mace, and axe, of which Richard himself was quite fond.
The infantry were protected by larger kite shaped shields, and wore what
chainmail they could acquire, leather being a more common
substitute. Their arms consisted mainly of spear and crossbow, the
spearmen providing the crossbowmen with a base of fire, and also providing a
base and follow up charge for the cavalry.
In addition to the knights and spear/crossbow infantry, Richard supplemented
his army with siege engineers, Turcopole light cavalry, fighting in Turkish
fashion, and a fleet serving in a logistic role.
Saladin had an army even more mixed in composition than his opponent's. In all
Saladin most likely fielded an army roughly the same size as Richard's,
20,-30,000 men, divided more evenly between infantry and cavalry.
The Ayyubid cavalry fell into three categories, Arab horse, Turkish
horse-archers, and Mameluk slave horse. The Arab horse, recruited mainly from
Bedouin tribes, was lightly armed and armored, wearing little to no armor and
perhaps carrying a circular shield. They were armed primarily with lance and
longsword, and while popular in earlier Fatimid armies they were being
supplanted in the newer Ayyubid military. Turkish horse-archers were recruited
from the vast pool of Turkish nomads and tribes that had entered the Middle
East in the 1000s, and were renowned for their ability as skirmishers, raiders,
and harassers. Their armor consisted of leather or iron or leather lamellar.
Offensively their main weapon was the Turkish shortbow, which they could shoot
at full speed while on horseback, along with the lance, saber, and mace, the
latter two weapons the Turks introduced into Middle Eastern warfare. The
Mameluks, slave warriors of mainly Turkish descent, were more heavily armored,
though less so than the knights, with chainmail and lamellar, along with fluted
helm and a circular shield. They too were armed with saber, mace, and lance,
though their primary weapon was the shortbow, which they could use not only in
Turkish harassment tactics, but also in disciplined lines, based on their
Persian and Byzantine predecessors.
The infantry of Saladin was noticeably more mixed than the cavalry, the
Ayyubids having inherited the Fatimid infantry heavy system. Saladin's infantry
included everything from Armenian mercenary spearmen and archers, to Nubian
archers and javelinmen, to Arab militia, skilled in siege warfare. The arms and
armor of the infantry varied widely, according to their background, but most
were very lightly armored, often having nothing more than a shield, while arms
were primarily bows, spears, and javelins.
While marching to his ultimate goal of Jerusalem, Richard kept his forces close
to the Mediterranean Sea, his fleet logistic being readily available for the
army. Closest to the sea marched his baggage train with a screen of infantry,
next were the cavalry, the Knights Hospitaller in the rear, the Knights Templar
in the vanguard, followed by a line of protective infantry. Though a
multinational force marching through the blazing sun, Richard was an
experienced military commander, and kept iron discipline among his troops.
Saladin saw the march as a chance to crush the crusaders in the field, push
them back into the sea, and thus secure the doom of the Crusader States. He
began by sending his light infantry and Turkish horse in skirmishing attacks
against the crusader left flank, commanded by the Hospitallers. These attacks
began as minor harassment, over the course of the day they intensified to a
desperate struggle for the Hospitallers. Saladin's goal was to force the
crusader left flank away from the main army, creating a gap he could then
exploit by a full charge, destroying the crusader formation and pushing
Richard's forces into the Mediterranean. Were it not for the discipline of
Richard and the Hospitallers, he may have succeeded.
The attacks on the left flank consisted mainly of archery and javelin fire, the
crusaders behind their wall of infantry spearmen and retaliating with
crossbows. The Hospitallers suffered few losses, however they were losing
horses. Several times they begged Richard to launch a full charge, fearing if
they lost any more horses they wouldn't be able to charge at all. Richard
refused each request, waiting for Saladin to expose his right flank, when it
would be away from the center and left and more vulnerable to a charge.
Saladin continued to commit more men to the crusader left flank, some Turkish
horse even dismounting to better shoot into the crusader ranks. More requests
were made, and denied, by the Hospitallers to charge. As the knights continued
to lose horses they too lost all patience, and without orders charged into the
Ayyubid right flank. Richard, seeing no option but to support the charge,
ordered the Templars to charge the Ayyubid left. The Ayyubids, having failed to
provoke a charge all day, were caught by surprise, and though they attempted to
rally, they were slaughtered. The knights, followed by their infantry, killed
over 7,000 Ayyubids, including 7 high ranking emirs, at a total loss of at best
1,000 casualties for the crusaders.
The victory of Arsuf allowed Richard to continue unimpeded down the
Mediterranean coast. Though Richard believed he could take the city of
Jerusalem, he believed once most of the crusaders returned home, those
remaining would be unable to hold it. After several more actions, including the
amphibious retaking of the port of Jaffa, and a proposed marriage between
Richard's sister and Saladin's brother, the King of England concluded a peace
with Saladin and left the Holy Land in 1192, bringing an end to the Third
Richard would have a tumultuous and years long return home, eventually dying
from an infected wound during a minor siege in 1199. Saladin would die
peacefully in 1193, the dynasty he established continuing to rule most of the
Middle East until its overthrow by the Mameluk slave warriors in 1250.
By his victory at Arsuf and other accomplishments of the Third Crusade, Richard
gave the Crusader States another hundred years of life, the last crusader city,
Acre, falling to the Mameluk Dynasty in 1291. With the fall of the Crusader
States, as well as the collapse of the Mongol Empire and the rise of the
Ottoman Empire, the Western European trade routes to East Asia were restricted,
leading to a famous voyage in 1492.
Though never having met face to face, Richard and Saladin had a deep mutual
respect, tales of their chivalry echoing across Medieval Europe. Both men have
attained near legendary status, and both men found their destiny at the Battle
of Arsuf, September 7, 1191.
Ambroise, 1196, Crusade Of Richard Lion Heart.
Anonymous, Crusade And Death Of Richard Lion Heart. Translated by R.C.
Billings, Malcolm. The Cross And the Crescent, 1987.
Payne, Robert. The Dream And The Tomb, 1984.
Kohn, George. Dictionary Of Wars, Revised Edition, 1999.
Nicolle, David, McBride, Angus. Saladin And The Saracens. Osprey, 1992.
Copyright © 2005 by Dan Fratini.
Written by Dan Fratini. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Dan Fratini at:
About the author:
Dan Fratini is a lifelong military history enthusiast, focusing on the Medieval
time period, in particular the Crusades, Mongol Empire, and Byzantine Empire.
Dan hails from the Northeastern United States, having studied criminal law in
Published online: 10/03/2005.